Classroom seating plans are akin to the table plan for a wedding. One where the bride’s family are West Ham fans, and the groom’s family are all Millwall supporters.
It's a tricky juggling act where you need to balance the mix of friendships and frenemies, the passionate and the passive, the challenging and the cheerful. Throw into that the extra consideration of SEN, EAL, access to the door, access to the aisle, space for extra equipment…it is like a juggling act. But you’re juggling chainsaws. And they’re on fire.
So why, why why why, are we overcomplicating this by putting the tables into groups?
Advantages of rows
The most logical option for room arrangement is to put the tables into rows facing the board. In front of the board you have the obvious gap where you can stand to deliver the main content of the lesson. Sure, you might be blessed with a spacious classroom, or a small class, and you can move around and change your teaching spot. But in reality, most of us are faced with 30+ in an old Victorian classroom that was originally built for 15, and they’ve put the stationery cupboard in the corner.
In rows, all students can look at the board without turning round. In rows, all students have the optimal position to hear what you’re saying. In rows, you have the best chance of catching passing notes, mobile phones, and apprehending the perpetrators of low-level bullying that frequently takes the form of hard-to-spot unpleasant looks and whispered insults.
"But what about group work?" those supporters of grouped tables will cry.
What about it, indeed! Four to a group is ideal, so two in front turn to the back and – taadaa! – you have a group.
Setting up for trouble
When I was training, I was frequently encouraged to "change it up" and alter my classroom layout every half term. Six different formations every year. Each class would need six different seating plans. Teaching workload agreement anyone?
Table groups are brilliant if you’re aiming for a class full of low-level chat, opportunities for off-task behaviour, and you wish to provide your students with lots of alternative points of focus, other than yourself, and their learning.
You might have excellent behaviour in your classroom, which has table groups, but consider all that takes place that you cannot see. Despite what you might tell gullible Year 7s, you don’t actually have eyes in the back of your head. So unless you’ve put mirrors on each wall, then you don’t really know.
I’ll happily concede that in rows you also won’t ever see everything, but at least you’re giving it your very best shot.
Tables in rows might be perceived as an old-fashioned and traditional approach. But is that really so bad? We use our classrooms to set out our expectations for our students. They see rows and they will know they’re there to learn.
And what else are we designing our classrooms to do, if not be places for learning to take place?
I’m not a ringmaster, my classroom isn’t a circus and my students aren’t clowns.
So you can keep your horseshoes and radial groups. I’ll stick to rows!
Grainne Hallahan has been teaching English in Essex for 10 years. She is part of the #TeamEnglish Twitter group